The Origin of Human Rights

This is the 42nd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

This is the 42nd installment of Thinking it Through, and over the last 41 weeks, I have often bored my readers with talk of “rights” and “freedoms” and so on. Such talk is everywhere—politicians love to speak of rights to display their compassion, and of freedom to display their liberalism. Often, though, these terms are dreadfully misused, and hide double standards that none of our politicians are exempt from. With a humble ponderousness alert, allow me to explain my notion of the basis of human rights.

In my view of the world, the most basic right of all is one that we are born with: the right to self-ownership. All legitimate human rights emerge from this. If we own ourselves, we obviously have the right to life, and to live as we please. Our thoughts and speech belong to us—thus, the right to free speech. Our labour, and the fruits of our labour, belong to us—thus, all property rights. And so on.

All these rights are contingent on our respecting the rights of others— they have no meaning otherwise. For example, my right to free speech entitles me to express myself as I please only when it does not involve an infringement on someone else’s right. If Mint refuses to publish this column, I cannot accuse it of censorship—my right to free speech ends where Mint’s right to property begins. On my own blog, and in a public space, I don’t have to worry about this.

Our politicians, and many commentators, display double standards when it comes to protecting our rights. They would agree that a person’s life is his own property, and that taking it away from him—i.e., murder—is wrong. Equally, they would agree that his labour belongs only to him, and to deny him of it amounts to slavery. But they don’t extend that logic to other human rights that have the same moral basis.

For example, if it is wrong to deny me of my labour, why does it become okay to take away some of the fruits of my labour? If the government marched us off to work for it for four months of every year, most of us would protest and call it slavery. If one-third of our income is taxed, it amounts to the same thing. But we don’t protest. Indeed, if murder and rape and slavery are wrong, then what about import duty and censorship and taxes? The same principle sits at the heart of all these matters—the right to self-ownership. Any politician who defends free speech but opposes free markets, or vice versa, is being philosophically inconsistent.

There is, of course, a utilitarian justification for limited taxes. Our whole framework of rights stands for nothing in the real world if there is no one to protect them. That, many classical liberals like me would say, is the only real justification of government. We accept the taxes necessary for this as a necessary evil. But while the government cannot carry out this basic function properly—the rule of law is effectively absent or at best arbitrary for most poor people in India—it spends most of our taxes on other, wasteful things. Furthermore, it places huge restrictions on our freedoms—and, thus, infringes our rights.

The kind of rights I have described, the ones which arise from the right to self-ownership, are known to philosophers as negative rights. To respect them, others simply have to refrain from infringing them. But politicians have also come up with another class of rights known as positive rights. These require action from others.

For example, people speak of a right to education, or to health care, or to a livelihood. These are all desirable things, but there is no philosophical basis to describing them as rights. Indeed, positive rights directly clash with negative rights, and require their infringement. After all, how can a government provide education or medicines to some people without taking away the property of others via taxes? Redistributing property like this amounts to infringing the rights of some people to fulfil the needs or desires of others. I am not arguing that our government should not fund education or health care, but talking of it in terms of “rights” is shallow and meaningless.

Of course, we do not always make policy in the real world by referring to philosophy and first principles. Often, we look at consequences. And here we find the greatest triumph for the system of negative rights that I have just described. History stands testament to the link between freedom and progress: the countries that wipe out poverty the quickest have been the ones that have guaranteed economic freedom to their people. Social freedoms are equally important to enable a country’s citizens to express their potential to its greatest extent. Human progress is directly proportional to the respect shown to all the human rights that emerge from the fundamental right to self-ownership.

Politicians who ignore all evidence for this assertion are free to do so, of course. I would not dream of infringing on their right to self-delusion.

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You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.